Biden’s Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons: a Dialogue

B61 nuclear warheads in storage. Photo: US DOE.

Ricard Falk: The humane and competently handled responses that the Biden presidency has pursued with respect to the COVID challenge, mitigating economic burdens on the poor, empathy for abuses of persons of color, and moves toward proposing a massive infrastructure program are uplifting changes in policy and leadership of the country, especially welcomed after enduring Trump for four years. Even the handling of the seasonal surge of asylum aspirants at the Mexican border, although disturbing, exhibits a presidential approach seeking to find ways to reconcile ethics with practicalities of governance. Yet if we turn from these impressive beginnings at home to the early indications of Biden’s foreign policy the picture seems bleaker, and this includes our primary focus on nuclear weaponry.

Of course, it makes perfect political sense for Biden to tackle these domestic challenges first, and avoid distractions that would arise if the government were to pursue international policies that agitated pro-military Republicans and even so-called moderate Democrats. To get his emergency programs past legislative obstacles in a robust form required mustering as much unity across the political spectrum as possible, yet even with this acknowledgement I feel uncomfortable about what Biden has so far done with respect to foreign policy.  I am worried by the Biden stress on restoring the alliance/deterrence approach to global security as if the Cold War never ended. In slightly veiled language that conveys a militarist spirit Biden expresses these sentiments in a cover letter to his March 2021 Interim National Security Strategy Guidance official document, advancing as “..a core strategic proposition: the United States must renew its enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength.”

Apparently without forethought Biden called Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, ‘a killer,’ and lacking ‘a soul,’ then followed up by rejecting Moscow’s temperate call for a diplomatic meeting between the leaders to address disagreements between the two countries. Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have followed suit with interactions in their Alaska meetings with Russian counterparts that were calculated to raise tensions. Such postures are all about projecting American strength and conveying to others a dangerous geopolitical disposition that refuses to back down in crisis situations that are certain to arise, and for these important public figures, it means encounters with China and Russia.

When it comes to the nuclear agenda, despite agreeing to renew the START Treaty for another five years, preliminary glimpses of Biden’s general outlook seem driven by viewing America’s global experience as one of confronting, deterring, and overcoming. More concretely, it seems to involve reconstructing the Cold War atmosphere of friends and enemies, which is accompanied by national self-love, American exceptionalism, and a strong tendency to blame others for whatever goes wrong in the world. We lecture others, while bitterly resent being criticized, especially along similar lines.

It is not that the shortcomings of Russia and China are unworthy of concern, but not less so than systematic racism, gun violence, and persisting poverty in the United States, national deficiencies that are well within our capabilities to correct. Foreign policy aims are cynically disclosed by whether human rights violations are obscured as with Saudi Arabia and India or stridently asserted as with Russia and China.

In such an atmosphere to have the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard proclaim that relations with these two adversaries of the U.S. is likely to produce a regional crisis in the months ahead is a signal that should not be ignored. Worse, Richard adds that given the stakes and force postures in the South China Seas, such a faceoff could quickly escalate to the point of provoking a nuclear war. The admiral is not inclined to suggest ways to reduce such risks of confrontation. Instead, he issues a solemn assertion that it is imperative for the U.S. to shift the focus of its security planning from the supposedly prevailing idea that the use of nuclear weapons is not possible to the view that such use “is a very real possibility.” [See Richard, “Forging 21st Century Strategic Deterrence,” Proceedings of United States Naval Institute, Feb. 2021.] The failure to repudiate or to tone down such a public statement might well be causing panic among strategic planners in Beijing and Moscow.

It seems Inexcusable to let matters move so quickly in such menacing and unacceptable directions. Not only is Admiral Richard’s language chilling, but it is being used to plead for increased spending devoted to the modernization of the U.S. already outsized nuclear arsenal. I think we at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation should be depicting an alternative denuclearizing future with all the energy and resources at our disposal. As serious as are the domestic challenges we must remain vigilant, doing our best to avoid the scenarios that Admiral Richard projects as probable, and even more so, the way he envisions nuclearizing responses to such geopolitical challenges should they arise. Such conjectures are made more menacing if account is taken of recent Pentagon simulations that suggest that China’s regional naval prowess is such that if war making erupts China is likely to prevail if the confrontation is confined to conventional weaponry.

Is it already too late to awaken Biden and his entourage to this heightened nuclear risk? Let’s hope we never find out? To be clear, I would argue that this overarching issue commands our immediate attention, but there are other pressing concerns and opportunities for those of us devoted to achieving a world without nuclear weapons as a necessary and attainable goal.

David Krieger: Biden embarked on the presidency with a full and pressing domestic agenda, starting with bringing the Covid-19 pandemic under control in the U.S., and dealing with an economy in serious trouble as a consequence of the pandemic. In addition, Biden has pushed forward legislation on rebuilding infrastructure in the country and in support of voting rights for all Americans.  He has been ambitious and determined in pursuing his domestic agenda, but has so far paid little attention to foreign policy.

Biden’s choices for Secretary of State and National Security Advisor have been from the foreign policy establishment, individuals who support, as does Biden, a strong U.S. nuclear posture based in Cold War thinking.  You raise some worrisome examples of expressions of nuclear arrogance toward Russia and China, which demonstrate more of a taunting attitude than the compassion and empathy that Biden has expressed toward victims of Covid, mass shootings, and poverty.

Biden should be commended for acting quickly upon assuming the presidency to extend the New START treaty with Moscow.  He has not, however, brought the U.S. back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018.  Nor has he pursued relations with North Korea concerning their nuclear weapons program.  On balance, it appears that Biden has not given much attention to foreign policy matters and that his default position is a Cold War stance based upon nuclear deterrence, and a world divided into alliance partners (friends) and adversaries (enemies). This is a dangerous posture because nuclear deterrence is not guaranteed to work and, in fact, cannot be proven to work because it is not possible to prove a negative (something does not happen because something happens).  Nuclear deterrence is based on threats of nuclear use, which could encourage one side to act first in launching nuclear weapons at an adversary before the adversary launches first.

I doubt that Biden or those around him have seriously considered the critique of nuclear deterrence and simply accept it at face value.  Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev concluded that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”  Biden seems comfortable basing U.S. security on a policy of nuclear strength.  But strength in the form of nuclear deterrence is extremely dangerous.  A nuclear war could begin by malice, mistake, miscalculation, or madness.  Of these, only malice is even possibly subject to nuclear deterrence. Mistake, miscalculation and madness are not influenced by nuclear deterrence posture (threat of nuclear retaliation).

I believe that Biden is a good and decent man who is guided in his life and leadership by compassion and empathy. Nonetheless, he has not shown up to now that he brings those traits to bear on U.S. nuclear policy.  He must be pressed to understand the global dangers of policy based upon U.S. nuclear dominance. Such a policy, although it has been U.S. policy since the end of World War II, could fail catastrophically, were nuclear deterrence to fail. It is as if we were playing a game of nuclear roulette with the gun pointed at the heart of humanity. This is the message that the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and other like-minded groups must convey to Biden. If we are to reduce the dangers of standing at the nuclear precipice, he must bring as much compassion and leadership to U.S. nuclear policy as he has shown he is capable of bringing to U.S. domestic policy.

What do you see as the specific policy initiatives that we should press for in the area of foreign and nuclear policy?

Falk: I don’t want to come across as someone who has only one arrow in his quiver, but I believe the danger of a confrontation with China in the South China Seas poses the highest risk of nuclear warfare since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. I recall no prior occasion where top military officials were arguing in public that a regional confrontation with China was not only probable, but that the U.S. naval capabilities would not be able to avoid defeat in such combat if conducted with conventional weaponry. Since an American defeat at the hands of China would be an unacceptable option, preparation for the use of nuclear weaponry should be seen by American strategists as probable, imperative, and strategically necessary. All indications are that China regards this region off its coast as properly within its sphere of influence, and would be unlikely to back off if confronted either mistakenly or deliberately. We know further that both sides have engaged in provocative activity in the region to convey their commitment to defend strategic interests, which could easily have produced a military encounter due to bluff or miscalculation, if not by deliberate intention.

What is disturbing is Biden and Blinken’s failure, given these risks, to seek a de-escalation of tensions, but have acted in directly the opposite manner. I don’t share your sense that the Biden presidency has not accorded a significant amount of attention to foreign policy. Throughout his campaign and in comments since in the White House three connected ideas have been stressed: (1) making a great effort to restore a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy with a revived emphasis on alliance diplomacy of the sort that flourished during the Cold War; (2) treating China as a prime adversary because it challenges U.S. economic and technological primacy in the world, and adheres to an alien ideology that includes the oppression of the Uyghur minority; when U.S. foreign policy stresses human rights is wants to inflame tensions, when it wants to nurture allies it shuts up—for example, silence about the Modi discriminatory moves against Muslims in India or Sisi’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; (3) the combination of (1) + (2), points to rising geopolitical tensions and an alarming dependence on nuclear weapons to ensure a favorable balance; this is enough for me to reach the conclusion that a pre-crisis atmosphere exists between these two globally dominant states that must be exposed, and bold steps taken with no time to waste, seeking peaceful coexistence with China (and Russia) coupled with a tangible readiness to cooperate on meeting the challenges of climate change.

I do not want to evade your invitation with regard to specific steps that would have denuclearizing effects. I have long been supportive of seeking to engage nuclear weapons states in a joint pledge of No First Use, and if that were not forthcoming, then a bilateral pledge along such lines by the United States and Russia, the two countries with 90% of the nuclear warheads in existence. Such a step, accompanied by adjustments in doctrine, deployments, and strategic planning would considerably reduce the risks of stumbling into a nuclear war and would go part way to repudiate the unconscionable development of first use weaponry and missions, as well as the failure to take the immediate step of confining deterrence to a situation of ultimate self-defense, thereby partially conforming to the views of the International Court of Justice as expressed by the majority in the rendering of 1996 Advisory Opinion.

A second specific step would be to restore the JCPOA Nuclear Agreement with Iran as you suggest. Again, I think that rather than explain the failure of Biden to move constructively to undo the damage done by Trump’s withdrawal by inattentiveness, the hard bargaining stance taken by the U.S. is an attempt to be responsive to Israeli and Saudi pressures, as well as to avoid giving rise to distracting controversies at home.

Let me conclude by feeling less positive about Biden’s political profile. I do, like you, as I earlier indicated, commend his sensitive and energetic responses to the pandemic, the need for equity in government efforts to hasten an economic recovery, and thinking big on infrastructure. And yet I don’t see evidence in his past for an optimistic rendering of either his policies or character. He is the political variant of ‘a company man’ as near I can tell. Recall Kamala Harris’ acerbic takedown of Biden during an early campaign debate. He not only supported the Iraq War in 2003, he championed the public and Congressional mobilization for it as chair of the relevant Senate Committee; he was always a reliable proponent of large peacetime military budgets, a Cold Warrior in all respects, who was also compliant with Wall Street’s agenda, and certainly did not do himself proud during the Clarence Thomas hearings while presiding over the pillorying of Anita Hill. Let’s hope this past is not a prelude to his foreign policy future. Yet we should refrain from canceling his complicities in some of America’s worst past political moments. We can forgive, but we are foolhardy if we forget.

Krieger: I share your concern that a confrontation between China and the U.S. could escalate into a nuclear war, but the same holds true of a confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir or a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.  There are any number of ways in which a nuclear war could be initiated and, so long as nuclear arsenals exist, escalation of a conflict to nuclear war is always a possibility.  De-escalation of tensions in a nuclear-armed world is always called for, but even more important is recognizing the chronic danger of nuclear weapons in the world and taking actions to move away from the precipice of nuclear catastrophe by committing to and developing a plan for moving to nuclear zero.  I am most interested in what actions need to be taken now to achieve the goal of nuclear zero.  In other words, what actions must be taken to assure that the world is on the way to a place where fear of nuclear war is matched by steps leading to total nuclear disarmament. Thus far, Biden has shown no inclination to move in this direction. He has not opposed such steps, but neither has he proposed them, For the most part he has been silent on issues related to nuclear policy and his silence has been worrisome.

You mention that one step toward nuclear sanity would be a pledge of No First Use of nuclear weapons.  This is a controversial step in that it seems to give some legitimacy to second use (retaliatory use) of nuclear weapons. Still, though, it is the case that if no country used nuclear weapons first, there would be no use at all, except for the possibility of mistake or accident, which would remain a serious problem. A further critique of No First Use is its reliance on a pledge, which could be broken. The best way to deal with the danger of breaking the pledge would be to accompany the pledge with deployment strategies that make first use far more difficult, such as separating warheads from delivery vehicles, as I believe is still done by China.  Further, in the case of the U.S., it would be appropriate to dismantle and destroy all land-based nuclear-armed missiles, since, as fixed targets, they are “use them or lose them” weapons.

It was reported that Barack Obama wanted to make a pledge of No First Use near the end of his presidency, but this idea received considerable push-back from his national security team.  It would be interesting to know what position Biden took on the possibility of a U.S. No First Use pledge. Regardless, though, of where Biden stood on this issue then, it should be pressed on him now or, even better, he should be pressed to make a pledge of No Use of nuclear weapons.  This would be an even larger step toward nuclear abolition, demonstrating that the U.S. had no plans to use these omnicidal weapons and, in that way, demonstrating serious leadership toward the goal of nuclear zero.  The push-back for this step would be that it would likely cause the states under the U.S. nuclear umbrella to develop their own nuclear arsenals.

In addition to restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), there is much more restoring of agreements that should be done.  Trump pulled the U.S. out the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, which eliminated a whole class of missiles.  Trump also pulled the U.S. out of the Open Skies Agreement, a confidence building agreement between the U.S., many European countries, and Russia, which allows for overflights of each other’s territories. Additionally, George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia.  These treaties were important means of restraint of nuclear arms races.  They should be restored and expanded.

There is much more that Biden could do if he had the inclination to protect U.S. security by moving toward eliminating the nuclear threat to the U.S. and the world.  He could, for example, make a pledge of No Launch on Warning, in order to protect against launching to a false warning. He could change U.S. policy so that the president no longer has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. He could stop plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and use the one trillion dollars saved to support his plans for replacing infrastructure and supporting social welfare programs.

Biden has given little indication as of now that the issues of nuclear catastrophe and nuclear policy are on his mind.  But, as I said previously, he has been focusing on eradicating the Covid pandemic and on his domestic agenda. You are right to say that we should not forget that Biden has made some unfortunate decisions, such as supporting the initiation of the Iraq War, during his long political career. Regardless, he is who we have as president, and he is certainly far more thoughtful and rational than his predecessor. He may not be ideal, but we have no choice but to try to influence his nuclear policies in the direction of nuclear sanity. I think the most important thing that we could do is to challenge the efficacy of nuclear deterrence. If we can successfully do this, it opens the door to moving the U.S. to play a leadership role in seeking the abolition of all nuclear weapons, as it is required to do under the terms of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Falk: I agree with all that you propose in your last response, and agree that those who favor denuclearization and the abolition of nuclear weaponry should suspend final judgment on whether Biden, once that the domestic challenges have been addressed, would seem responsive to some of the points of emphasis that you encourage. My supposition is that he is so much a product of the Cold War mentality that he will not be willing to question the continuing reliance on a deterrence role for nuclear weapons beyond adapting its delimitation to the present realities of political rivalry. His imaginary featuring an American-led global alliance of democratic states also presupposes deterrence to reassure allies such as Japan, South Korea, and others that the U.S. security umbrella remains trustworthy enough so that other governments will not feel a need for obtaining their own national nuclear option. In other words, deterrence and non-proliferation are tied together in what could be described as ‘a suicidal knot.’

I would add two issues to those you have proposed. First of all, I think it would be opportune to argue for either the good faith implementation of the NPT as interpreted by the ICJ Advisory Opinion in 1996 at least at the level of the majority decision, which called unanimously for adherence to Article VI of the treaty. This would have the advantage of putting not only the question of nuclear disarmament diplomacy at the top of the political agenda, but would also look toward a more general international obligation to seek the demilitarization of International relations more generally. It often forgotten that Article VI mandates ‘general and complete disarmament’ as well as ‘nuclear disarmament.’

If Biden refuses such a course of action, then it would be appropriate for non-nuclear states to threaten to withdraw from the NPT if compliance with Article VI is not forthcoming within two years. The movement for nuclear zero should make clear that the record of the nuclear weapons states has been to treat these Article VI requirements as ‘useful fictions’ rather than as an integral element in the treaty bargain between the nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear states. It would also be analytically helpful to make clear that NPT has been supplemented by an American-led geopolitical regime of ‘enforcement’ that denies certain states their Article X right of withdrawal, and as applied is relied upon to justify sanctions against North Korea and Iran, which constitute unlawful threats and uses force in circumstances other than self-defense, violating the core prohibition of the UN Charter set forth in Article 2(4).

In other words, the NPT was drafted to reflect an acceptance of a denuclearization agenda, but it has been geopolitically interpreted over its more than half century of existence from an arms control perspective that seeks to lower some costs and risks of nuclearism but implicitly rejects the treaty premise of denuclearization. We at the NAPF can contribute to vital public education by making this understanding clear, and demystifying the behavior of nuclear weapons states that rhetorically affirm denuclearization while operationally pursuing security in a manner consistent with the logic of nuclearism, including the retention of deterrence as an indispensable element. At the very least, the next NPT review conference tentatively rescheduled for August 2021 should examine adherence to Article VI in a systematic and high-profile manner, and perhaps the diplomatic practice surrounding Article X as well.

Closely related, is the status of the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), with 86 signatories, which entered into force earlier in 2021 after the receipt by the UN of the 50thratification. The five permanent members of the Security Council have removed any doubt about their posture toward nuclear weaponry by issuing a joint statement opposing the philosophy underlying TPNW, and essentially opting for the benefits of deterrence, which would be lost if the comprehensive prohibition of all aspects of nuclearism were to be implemented. The anti-nuclear movement throughout the world, despite its many differences, should seek unity through supporting ratification by all sovereign states of TPNW, and most of all the nuclear weapons states. I would hope that an argument to the effect could be made, possibly by a widely circulated statement endorsed by a range of moral authority figures, from William Perry and Jerry Brown to Dan Ellsberg and David Krieger. It would lead, I believe, to a necessary national debate that would alert the public to the dangers of the present structure of nuclearism and point to the existence of a preferred alternative peaceful path to enhanced global security at reduced cost.

My final point is to suggest that we are now at the early stages of a major geopolitical reconfiguration of global relations. It seems likely that the near future will bring either a new form of bipolarity pitting the West against China, and possibly Russia, or an acceptance of coexistence among major states as the basis for multilateral problem-solving with respect to such global challenges as climate change, biodiversity, industrial agriculture and fishing, worldwide migration, and transnational crime. This kind of global cooperative order will not materialize if a regional confrontation in the South China Seas occurs between the U.S. and China, and especially not if nuclear weapons are threatened or used to avoid a U.S. defeat. Such a scenario, even if its occurrence is conjectural, is an added reason to deescalate frictions with China as a foreign policy priority. Martin Sherwin in his fine book, Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis (2021) convincingly documents his central finding that it was dumb luck that saved the world from a nuclear war occurring in the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Let’s at least learn to be prudent before our luck as a nation and species runs out.

Krieger: You add two treaties, one relatively old and one relatively new, to the set of options available to Biden that could lead to progress on nuclear abolition.  The older of the two treaties is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with its Article VI obligations of good faith negotiations to end the nuclear arms race at an early date, for nuclear disarmament, and for general and complete disarmament. Article VI was the quid pro quo for on the part of the nuclear weapons states for nonproliferation on the part of the non-nuclear weapon states.  It was never intended, at least by the non-nuclear weapon states, for the NPT to be the justification for setting up a permanent structure of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots,” and Article VI was the means by which the playing field would be leveled in achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.  The problem with Article VI is that it has never been pursued in any serious or sustained fashion by the nuclear weapons states.

When the parties to the NPT met in 1995 for a review and extension conference, 25 years after the treaty entered into force, it was already clear that the nuclear weapons states, and their allies under their nuclear umbrella, were not acting in good faith on Article VI.  Nonetheless, the nuclear weapons states and their allies argued for and achieved an indefinite extension of the treaty rather than a series of shorter extensions contingent upon progress on the Article VI obligation of good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.  I strongly agree with you that the public needs to be educated on the actual bargain of the NPT, and the behavior of the nuclear weapons states toward their end of the bargain needs to be demystified and exposed to public scrutiny.  It may be that Biden is too much of a cold warrior to play a leadership role on this, but we need to try to influence both him and the public under any circumstances.  The longer the Article VI obligations remain unfulfilled, the more likely it becomes that a bad nuclear outcome will ensue, by accident or design.  As I have said before, the nuclear status quo is akin to playing nuclear roulette with the gun pointed at the heart of humanity.

The second treaty you refer to, the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), is a relatively new treaty.  It is a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons, and was achieved as a result of a civil society campaign led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which lobbied and worked with non-nuclear weapon states to create and support the treaty.  The treaty was adopted by the United Nations in 2017, and entered into force on January 22, 2021.  The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation was one of some 500 member organizations in ICAN, and shared along with the other member organizations the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

You are certainly right that the nuclear weapons states have put on a full-court press to oppose this nuclear ban treaty, and therefore we must do all we can to educate the public on the existence and importance of the treaty.  If we could spark a national debate on the treaty, it could take us a long way toward changing attitudes about nuclear weapons and the need to abolish them before they abolish us.

Upon considerable reflection, it still remains hard to understand why weapons that could destroy civilization and possibly the human species have been so small a part of our national discussion, and the leadership of the country seems so reliant upon this weaponry.  Nuclear deterrence is not a shield; nor is it a reasonable justification for threatening or committing mass murder. It is a strategy that puts a target on every man, woman and child in the nuclear weapons states, with ripple effects endangering all of humanity.  Until these weapons are abolished we are all at risk of nuclear annihilation.  The leaders of the nuclear weapons states seem to have learned very little about nuclear dangers or risks over the decades since they were first used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Our luck has held since then, but such luck is not guaranteed to continue. There have been many close calls, many near nuclear disasters.

Biden may be, as you say, most comfortable as a cold warrior, but his compassion could move him to explore alternatives to nuclear deterrence, which could result in new hope to end the scourge that nuclear weapons pose to humanity and other forms of life.  There is still time to bring about change, moving us back from the precipice of annihilation, and this must serve as a source of hope.  Biden could take the all-important step of convening the leaders of the nuclear weapons states in a nuclear abolition summit to chart a path to move from the Nuclear Age to nuclear zero, to change the course of our nuclear future.  This would be a valuable step in fulfilling the obligations of Article VI of the NPT and could open the door to the nuclear weapons states and their allies joining the rest of the world in becoming parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. While this may seem like an improbable step at this time, stranger things have happened and it does have the potential of combining hope with logic and vision.

Richard Falk is Professor Emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton University and Senior Vice President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. David Krieger is President Emeritus of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Richard Falk – David Krieger

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